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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories
Here’s lyrics to a song that I performed at UCLA’s engineering school talent show back in 2005. I was the host, not a contestant, but I wanted to provide some entertainment in between. So I wrote this song, because what’s the problems with love songs nowadays? “Not enough science in those songs!”
I can’t find a recording, but here’s the lyrics for you:
by Kelvin Kao
You are a proton,
I am an electron.
Ever since I first met you,
I was so attracted to you.
You are always so positive,
compensating for my being negative.
We have such a strong bond,
you know I will always be around.
Oh, how I fell for you,
and it’s not just due to the gravity.
I want to be your one and only,
so a hydrogen atom we shall be.
(That’s one proton and one electron, get it?)
So please be my proton.
I will be your electron.
If someone asks, what’s between you and me,
I’ll tell them, it’s purely chemistry.
A few weeks ago, I went to this show called How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular. It’s based on Dreamwork’s animated movie. It has life-size dragons (well, life-size according to the recently discovered dragon fossils), and is quite spectacular.
I went to the show fully expecting to thoroughly enjoy the show, because, you know, GIANT PUPPETS! I was sort of expecting it to be just Walking with Dinosaurs all over again, though, since it’s using the same technology. Well, wrong!
First of all, we have dragons. Dragons are different from dinosaurs, and that’s common knowledge that anyone should have. Seriously though, with dinosaurs, they were more focused on these gigantic creatures walking the earth with heavy steps and might. The dragons, however, felt a lot more light and flexible, because, after all, they fly. Oh, and they spit out smoke and light things on fire. Since when do dinosaurs do that, huh?
Second of all, this one actually has a story. The premise of Walking with Dinosaurs is that they are shooting a documentary in the creatures’ natural habitat, so there is not as much of a plot. With the How to Train Your Dragon story, there were so many interactions between the dragons and the humans. The humans fought, trapped, petted the dragons. And of course, they hopped on to the dragon and flew into the sky on it! The human performers were a delight to watch too.
On the technical note, they’ve definitely improved on the puppets. If I remembered correctly, the entire Walking with Dinosaurs show had only one flying dinosaur and it pretty much stayed in one place. This show had a few different flying dragons and they flied all over at different heights and angles. Some of the human actors also did stunts on wires. All these made for a very busy flying rig. As for the movements on land, they were not that different from two years ago, but definitely looked more polished.
There were also a lot more theatrical elements. The characters were great, both the actors and the puppets. The massive projections onto walls and the floor worked really well creating the environment. I was really impressed with the precision of execution in the scene in which the main character ran through the forest, encountering various terrain and dangers. The landscape was an animation projected on the wall, and the performer was on a wire running on the wall. That was one impressive stunt.
I thoroughly enjoyed the show. I highly recommend it. Los Angeles was the last leg of the North American tour, though. So it was probably too late for most of my readers if you haven’t seen it. The world tour is up next.
So, it’s back to Puppet School I go. This time for a different kind of puppet – marionette.
If you don’t know what a marionette is, it’s a puppet controlled using strings. Think Pinocchio, except it doesn’t come to life until a puppeteer makes it.
The class is taught by puppeteer Adrian Rose Leonard. We spent the first class connecting the wooden pieces into a puppet. The pieces were cut in ways that mimic the human anatomy and the joints were designed in ways to make sure that the neck, the elbows, the knees, etc. have the right range of movement. Since I’ve already read about basic marionette designs before, I didn’t gain a lot of head knowledge. However, putting one together did help the ideas sink in much more, and it’s good to be aware of the mechanics when we are working with the puppet.
The second week was where all the actual puppeteering fun starts. As with any kind of puppetry, you start with gravity. This is especially important for marionettes because using strings is a relatively indirect way to manipulate the puppet, compared to rods or gloves. We are pulling the strings to guide the movements and gravity is doing the rest of the work. The puppet might or might not be able to do a certain movement as a result of how it’s built and how the weight is distributed throughout. And then we talked about breath, yet another important topic for any kind of puppetry.
And we got to the emotions, where we were all trying to come up with different things (happy, sad, inpatient, etc.) and walking. Oh yes, it’s always tricky to make a marionette walk. What I found really interesting was that we were taught something that was the exact opposite of what I’ve heard elsewhere before. Here, Adrian kept the control bar relatively still, and kept the foot bar perpendicular to it and alternating moving the two sides up and down. However, I’ve heard another puppeteer talk about how he did it, which is to swing the foot bars out sideways, and the feet will go up and down because it’s being tucked by strings in sort of a circular motion, and the control bars are also being tilted in the opposite direction of the legs to compensate for that rotation. Both methods can work well, so I guess it depends on what feels right to you.
It is very likely that you did not understand that last paragraph. I am not sure if I would be able to understand it if I didn’t write it. Describing it with words is simply confusing, but it’s not difficult to understand if you’ve seen it done.
Now, actually doing it, is another story.
Marionettes take a lot of muscle memory, so really, the only way to get good at it is doing it over and over and over. I should find some time to do that.